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College Remediation: Who Needs It, and Does It Help?

A large research study examines the effectiveness of remedial courses in helping students graduate
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Many students enter college in the United States without the basic academic skills needed to be successful in their coursework. Harvard Graduate School of Education Academic Dean Bridget Terry Long has analyzed this issue, which lies at the intersection of K-12 and higher education. A large research study she and a colleague conducted in the state of Ohio provides much-needed information about the effectiveness of remediation for helping college students to graduate.

Many students enter college in the United States without the basic academic skills needed to be successful in their coursework. Researchers from the Manhattan Institute Center for Civic Information found that only 32 percent of students leave high school academically prepared for college (Greene & Foster, 2003). This percentage is even lower among black and Hispanic students (20 percent and 16 percent, respectively). These staggering figures are especially disconcerting, because these students are likely to need remediation in college — and far less likely to complete a degree — than classmates who enter with higher levels of skill. Ultimately, not having a college degree means these individuals will have a harder time finding meaningful work in today's knowledge economy.

To respond to the needs of their entering students, most two- and four-year colleges offer remedial courses, also referred to as developmental courses, in reading, writing, and mathematics. The basic goal is that students who complete these courses will then be prepared to complete standard degree requirements. In 2001, nearly one-third of first-year students in the United States were required to take remedial classes. However, schools vary widely in their policies for offering and/or requiring remediation. Ongoing debate surrounds the issues of whether these programs are effective as implemented, when and where the courses should be offered, and who should pay the bill.

Students who received remediation in math were more than 15 percent more likely to complete a college degree in four years. Those in English remediation programs were 9 percent more likely to do so....

As postsecondary institutions decide whether and how to offer remediation — and to whom — sound education research is sorely needed. Long and her colleague Eric Bettinger have helped to build on that body of research by studying the outcomes of remedial students at public colleges in Ohio. This state provides an important representative case because Ohio administers the fifth largest public higher education system in the United States, and is near the national averages for enrollment and remediation rates. Importantly, in 1998, the Ohio Board of Regents began tracking the educational progress of entering students at its 45 public colleges, based on information from applications, college transcripts, and standardized tests. Students were tracked even if they transferred into another Ohio college. This wealth of information is useful for examining the implementation and effectiveness of remediation in this state, which may also prove relevant to other parts of the country.

In Ohio, all public colleges administer remediation placement exams to incoming freshmen, though the institutions are free to select the tests and cut-off values used to assess the need for remediation. Overall, in the fall of 1998, 36 percent of students in Ohio's public higher education system were placed in remediation for either math or English, or both.

These percentages were higher at two-year colleges, as compared with four-year universities. The population of students in remediation covered a broad range of ages, racial backgrounds, and family income levels. At the state level, remediation in math is more common than in English (30 percent vs. 20 percent of students, respectively). According to the Ohio Board of Regents (2002), 25 percent of students who had completed a core high school curriculum still needed remediation in either math or English. This finding highlights a disconnect between the level of preparation attained by many high school students and the academic expectations of universities.

To understand the impact of remedial courses on the likelihood of student success, Long and her colleague focused on variation between colleges' cut-off points for remediation. Even if two students from different colleges score similarly on a given placement test, one may be placed in remediation at her school, while the other passes into regular college-level courses. Comparing students who are placed in and out of remediation, while also accounting for differences in background characteristics, Long found positive overall effects for students who took the remedial courses. Students who received remediation in math were more than 15 percent more likely to complete a college degree in four years. Those in English remediation programs were 9 percent more likely to do so, as compared to similar students not participating in these courses.

For students near the cut-off for remediation, this general form of academic support seems to promote degree attainment. These findings suggest that remediation can be an effective way to help students prepare for college-level coursework. Many questions remain to be addressed, however:  What are best practices in remedial courses, and how much exposure is most helpful for students? Do students with far greater academic deficiencies also benefit from remediation? Would support offered in K-12 schools be even more effective at promoting postsecondary success?

Consideration should be given to policies that reduce the need for remediation while still providing the necessary and useful support for students in college. One promising approach involves administering placement exams earlier, when students are in 9th or 10th grade. Coupled with adequate and supportive advising, these earlier exam results might help students, parents, and teachers work together to fill gaps in students' skills before they enter the postsecondary system. Putting policies like this into action will require dialogue between K-12 schools and higher education institutions. Success will help ensure a smooth academic transition from high school to college, and ultimately, from college graduation to the working world.

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